How Bob Dylan Turned David Remnick on to Serious Reading
“He’d mention Allen Ginsberg and I’d discover ‘Howl’ for a nickel at a secondhand sale,” says The New Yorker’s editor (and co-editor with Henry Finder of the new anthology “The Fragile Earth”). “He’d mention T.S. Eliot and I’d discover ‘The Waste Land.’”
What books are on your night stand?
It’s kind of a pileup under the night stand, to be precise. Books wait in a teetering pile, getting read sometimes serially, sometimes in bits, back and forth. Lately, there’s a hulking galley of Blake Bailey’s “Philip Roth: The Biography,” Zadie Smith’s “Intimations” and Daniel Dennett’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.” And, in case of imminent apocalypse, “The Code of the Woosters.”
What’s the last great book you read?
I loved Alex Ross’s “Wagnerism.” Karla Cornejo-Villavicencio’s “The Undocumented Americans” is an amazing debut. I finally got to “Hope Abandoned,” the sequel to Nadezhda Mandelstam’s “Hope Against Hope.” Oh, and Roger Angell’s “Late Innings.” I reread that as homage and celebration. Roger turned 100 on Sept. 19. Rereading him was a way of lighting the candles on the cake.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
“The Red and the Black.” I’m pretty sure it was on the syllabus for a college course I once took. I am only 75 semesters late. Also, not long after Toni Morrison died, I realized that I’d never read “Sula”; not that it’s news to anyone, but it’s stunning.
Can a great book be badly written?
Sort of. In a conventional sense, Dreiser’s prose is “badly written,” but the narrative power and ruthless characterizations in “Sister Carrie” and “Jennie Gerhardt” are, at least for me, undeniable.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
Anywhere with a lamp, a chair and some quiet. Palm trees are beside the point, beverages optional.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
I doubt that very many American readers know Venedikt Erofeev’s “Moskva-Petushki,” usually known as “Moscow to the End of the Line.” When I was living in Moscow as a newspaper reporter in the Gorbachev-Sakharov-Yeltsin years, all my Russian friends thought of that novel as a touchstone, a phantasmagorical masterpiece soaked in vodka and its era, the Brezhnev era.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
The writers who face the opposition and the oppression of the state, the writers who are deemed “enemies of the people,” the writers who brave censorship, detention, and prison and risk everything. The world is still blessed with such people and still cursed with the conditions and dictators who shadow them.
As the editor of The New Yorker, you read all the time for work, across a huge range of subjects. Does that make it harder for you to read for pure pleasure? How do you distinguish between personal and professional reading?
When I first started at this job, one of my sons, who was very young at the time, remarked, “You don’t seem to read anything anymore with covers.” Meaning I was up to my hips in printed manuscripts, galleys and proofs. It was a good alarm. But I didn’t need it for long. Reading is hardly a job. It is, endlessly, my pleasure.
Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?
Why feel guilty about reading of any kind? Because it’s not “Finnegans Wake” or “Being and Time”? I never understood that. I do read an awful lot about music and musicians. Peter Guralnick’s Elvis bio and his magnificent “Sweet Soul Music.” Albert Murray’s collaboration with Count Basie, Quincy Troupe’s collaboration with Miles Davis. Jay-Z’s “Decoded.” Dylan’s “Chronicles.” Angela Davis on Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. David Ritz’s biography of Aretha and his collaborations with Etta James and B. B. King. I go through stacks of them, high and low. Why feel guilty about that?
Which genres do you avoid?
I’m ashamed to admit it, but I just don’t understand science fiction. Some people can’t bear cilantro — they think it tastes “soapy.” That’s me with science fiction. No taste for it. Perhaps, more shameful: In recent years, I’ve read a lot of books about the natural world. And yet I just can’t get through “Walden.” Please, tell no one.
How do you organize your books?
Are the stars in the sky “organized”? Somehow, I suppose. Our books at home are a half a mess, grouped in random constellations, but just as often scattered. And yet I can usually find them. If I remember we have them.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
The New Testament. And yet I prefer the early, funny stuff.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
A first edition of “Pale Fire” from my friend and editor, Henry Finder. He also gave me a beautiful edition of a book that falls into the “overlooked” category: Alexander Herzen’s “From the Other Shore.”
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
When I was very young? Post “Pat the Bunny”? Sports. The biographies and as-told-tos of Sandy Koufax, Bill Russell and other boomer gods. What pushed me toward more serious reading was, strangely, my early love of rock ’n’ roll — specifically Bob Dylan. He’d mention Allen Ginsberg and I’d discover “Howl” for a nickel at a secondhand sale. He’d mention T. S. Eliot and I’d discover “The Waste Land.” I was uncomprehending at first, but then one thing leads to another and you are off to the races, reading all the way.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
One particular Koufax biography, by Ed Linn, inspired my classic Hebrew school composition, “Sandy Koufax: Great Pitcher, Greater Jew.” I got an “aleph” on that paper. I am not sure I would derive the same level of inspiration now.
What book would you recommend for America’s current political moment?
So much of what I read preparing for, during, and after my time in Moscow has stayed with me: Vaclav Havel and Joseph Brodsky’s essays, Eugenia Ginzburg and Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs, Anna Akhmatova’s poetry and prose, the whole library of antitotalitarian, antiauthoritarian literature. Those works, read alongside more obvious works in English — from Orwell to Baldwin to Jill Lepore’s “These Truths” — help keep alive the spirit of democratic values and the demands on us to realize them.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Can’t I just order in and read? I mean, what if Shakespeare eats with his mouth open and George Eliot fails to bring a cake? But there is one dinner I would organize as soon as public health allows: I’m what you might call an “indoorsman.” I like a roof. And walls. But twice a year, I go fishing with John McPhee, Ian Frazier and Mark Singer. Shad in the late spring, smallmouth bass in the early fall. They use complicated fly rods. I use a stick and string. (I’d use a grenade if I could.) Then there is dinner. We tend to eat chicken. (Catch and release for the fish. The bird is not as lucky.) I miss those dinners.
What do you plan to read next?
The list is so long. I’ve promised myself “Little Dorrit” this year and some other unopened necessaries. But next up is Saidiya Hartman’s “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments.” It’s moved into the on-deck circle. I’ve heard great things.
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